Bittersweet: Recipes and Tales from a Life in Chocolate Hardcover – 31 Oct 2003
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Learn everything you need to know about baking and cooking with chocolate in this comprehensive guide. " Better Homes & Gardens""
Top Customer Reviews
The only suggestion I would make for any future editions of the book would be to include more photographs of these wonderful creations for us mere mortals to reproduce.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
"Bittersweet" offers bakers (at any level of expertise) enticing new ingredients and technique that go into the creation of memorable chocolate desserts. She revisits old favorites, such as brownies, and offers variations; in my opinion, the Lacy Coconut-Topped Brownies alone are worth the price of the book. Mousse also gets the Medrich treatment, including a very successful variation that can be whipped up completely dairy-free, if desired.
Medrich also suggests some surprising ways to incorporate unsweetened chocolate into savory dishes, such as an astonishingly delicious Italian dolce-forte ("sweet and strong") meat sauce for pasta.
This is a fun book to read, which can't always be said of a cookbook, and the photographs are stunning. Memoirs are currently all the rage in the publishing industry, but here's one that doesn't leave the reader with a raging case of indigestion. Though many people consider Alice Medrich to be America's reigning chocolate queen, she isn't the one telling you so. In this unpretentious, informative book, her desire to share the joy of a bittersweet-chocolate moment shines through on every page.
The theme of the book is that, over the past decades, most American cookbooks dealing with chocolate have been written assuming that the home cook is using typical supermarket chocolate, which may be servicable, but which is undistinguished. In the past few years, though, superior chocolates have become very widely available, chocolates with complexity and sophistication.
Past recipes, with their heavy reliance on added sugar, fats, and flavorings, may work for less remarkable chocolates. But these recipes may overwhem and mask the unique characteristics of a finer chocolate. Assuming the home cook is using such a fine chocolate, Ms. Medrich analyzes and reconstructs many traditional recipes, and creates new ones as well, with an eye towards showcasing fine chocolate's personality rather than muting it.
The recipes are incredible just to read (the half-dozen I've made myself so far have been easy to construct and superb to eat). Ms. Medrich's attention to detail is, as always, excellent; most of the recipes even includes notes describing how to adjust for chocolates with varying percentages of chocolate liquor. (If you're baking with a 60% chocolate bar, for instance, you'd use different quantities of added sugar and fat than you'd use if baking with a 72% chocolate.)
Medrich also offers detailed explanations of the origins and philosophy behind certain dishes (mousse, for instance, or truffles). She devotes a large section of the book to the use of, and recipes for, roasted cocoa nibs. I've never before seen a book treat them as a serious ingredient in their own right.
There is also a wonderfully broad selection of recipes that utilize chocolate in savory dishes and entrees...miles beyond Chicken Mole.
Aesthetically, Bittersweet is elegantly designed and contains a decent number of color photographs (I crave more, though).
For chocoholics, this book really is an eye-opener. Unreseveredly recommended.
In her introduction, Ms. Medrich says she is attempting to write simple recipes for "busy home cooks." For the most part, she accomplishes what she set out to do. The recipes in general appear to be straight forward and with plenty of instructions for the most wary of beginners-- where to place the rack in the oven, exactly how long to beat a mixture, whether a creation tastes better the first or second day, for instance.
Although there are several other recipes I want to try, I bought this cookbook for one recipe alone, the Tiger Cake (page 269). It has everything going for it. It is absolutely stunning in appearance-- a five-year-old named it because of the stripes-- it is simple to make, and tastes divine. The twist here is that the cake substitutes extra virgin olive oil for the usual butter and has a half teaspoon of white pepper in it. And as the author says, it really is better the second day-- should you have any left.
In addition to the recipes, as the title indicates, Ms. Medrich has many stories about her experiences in chocolate. She could have called the book "My Journey from Milky Ways to Chocolate Truffles." There is much to be gleaned from this book. You will come back to it again and again, both for her stories and for guidance on baking with chocolate.
Finally, a word about the layout and design of this book: the desserts are beautifully photographed and the recipes for the most part are done with brown type on either a white or pale blue background so the volume is as pretty as it is helpful.
This book is billed as a memoir in addition to cookbook, but i find it to be lacking on this score. The anecdotes are relatively truncated and scattered, not well suited to sustained armchair reading. Also, I often find the tone irritating-- a combination of patronizing and self-congratulatory embedded in faux modesty. However, there is a lot of very useful information in this book, gleaned from a lifetime of practice and testing. Some of it is embedded in recipe notes, however (e.g. cold eggs can make a (not creamed) cake more tender). The organization of the book is not ideal either for learning or finding recipes, but there is a good index. I find I use the book most for its generally reliable and frequently exceptional recipes, and appreciate the tips and skills I acquire in the process of baking from it.
On this matter, I am slightly concerned that Ms. Medrich, in an otherwise superb book, does not simply drop all vagueness in chocolate labeling and go with products which are boldly labeled by percentage of chocolate liqueur to sugar. My guess is that while very high-end (expensive) product lines such as Vahlrona do this kind of labeling, more commonly available product lines do not do it. But then, we still wouldn't have leeks and shallots or organic products in our grocery stores if people such as Julia Child and Alice Waters hadn't started making a fuss about it. But I digress.
Another regret I get from reading this book has nothing to do with the quality of Ms. Medrich work. It is the fact that the great American chocolate producer Hershey has so little to contribute to those of us who wish to bake with high quality chocolate.
The most important warning one can take away from this book about chocolate products is the difference between conventional cocoa powder and Dutch Process cocoa powder. On the face of it, removing some bitterness from cocoa through the Dutch Process may seem like a good thing. But, the author points out that the process acts like a filter on music which removes all the high notes, so you end up with a less interesting flavor. Also, since there is a big difference in pH between conventional and Dutch Process, you cannot substitute one for the other safely if your recipe includes baking soda or baking powder.
The stories about the problems with melting chocolate probably outnumber all other calls for culinary advice. The stuff is finicky in the extreme. The irony is that the properties which make it finicky around heat are the same things which give it such a lush and rich mouth feel. That is, since cocoa butter melts at human body temperature, it will melt and be on its way to being scorched long before other products such as butter or olive oil even start to be ready to cook. Ms. Medrich gives excellent guidance for this most basic operation on chocolate by describing the three most successful methods for melting chocolate, the water bath, the double boiler, and the microwave oven. Medrich even succeeds in describing the difference between a water bath and a double boiler and the advantages of the former in a manner much clearer and more illuminating than the great Jeremiah Tower, who seemed to become especially tongue tied over the matter.
Ms. Medrich covers a wide range of chocolate preparations including Ice Cream and Brownies, Tortes, Truffles and Mousses, Souffles, Cakes and Glazes, Cookies, and selected savory dishes.
The book ends with several useful appendices on recognizing the various types of chocolate and their use. It is probably a virtue that this book often repeats the same information in two or three different contexts. This can only be to the good, especially for the spelunker who dips into selected chapters rather than reading the whole book. I definitely recommend that if you are really interested in working with chocolate, you read the whole book. Ms. Medrich's biographical anecdotes are both entertain and inform us about how she came about some of her successes with chocolate.